Tuesday 8 March 2016

The Final Stretch of the Algarve and Mina de São Domingos

Portugal, 24th – 28th February 2016

We have finally left Portugal, after two months here we've spent about twice as long here as we’d originally planned as we've enjoyed it again down here and found lots more nice and interesting places. We were aiming to get over to Morocco this winter and had gone as far as having immunisations while back in the UK and buying a Rough Guide and Camping Morocco books, however were not completely decided. The key thing that was still required was a vehicle insurance green card for the period that we would be there which would have to be arranged and posted, and after realising we were going to be in Portugal for a longer period it would be March before we would arrive which would be too late really as we’d want to allow 4-6 weeks over there. In addition there would be the added mileage on the van and a service due, so decided it will have to be left for another time.

The Coast from Olhão to Monte Gordo

From the campsite at Moncarapacho our plan was to go to an all-you-can-eat fish restaurant in Olhão which the English chap we met at Faro beach had highly recommended. It is only open at lunchtime and he advised getting there as close to 12:00 as possible to be sure to get a table. It ended up being just after this by the time we left the site as we got talking to the other British couple there, so Jo was thinking we’d have missed out, but after getting parked near a bunch of other motorhomes on a patch of rough ground we found the restaurant Vai e Volta and they had two tables available. However it did fill up shortly after, there was a mixture of locals and tourists dining. There is only one option on the menu for €9, this included bread and olives to start then an unlimited supply of freshly grilled fish with potatoes, sweet potatoes, chopped tomato & pepper salad, and a kind of thick warm sauce made of bread, garlic, oil and possibly other ingredients I can’t remember. They bring you a platter with three various fish on then when those have gone they keep bringing more to your table. There was a mixture of mackerel, salmon (surprisingly for the price) and others we’re not sure what they were. The fish selection probably depends on whatever the local fisherman catch on the day. It was all very nice and highly recommended if you’re passing through this way.

We had a brief look around Olhão, which is the largest fishing port town in the Algarve, but weren't particularly impressed, Jo likened it to a Portuguese Skegness without the arcades! So then we moved on along the coast to Fuseta. We passed a sign saying something along the lines of no camping except on camping grounds but arrived on the seafront car park (GPS: 37.05241, -7.74412) to find about twenty campers lined up so slotted in with them. There is a long sandbar island beach here running along the coast with sheltered water between it and the shore. There were two windsurfers out as conditions were ideal with a decent wind blowing, but with it being 4pm I decided it was a bit late to get everything out and set up as it wouldn't leave time to dry my kit out after, so would see what the morning was like. This turned out to be a bad move as with the tide out there was hardly any water left in the estuary in the morning and there was no wind so had no chance. Then after breakfast the Police came around moving everyone on, saying that we couldn't park here on the seafront but back in the town was ok. We moved to a small parking area down a side street out of the way to have a walk around the town before leaving.

Fishing boats lined up in Fuseta; by morning all of them were beached with the tide out
In Tavira we found a car park over the bridge alongside the river and headed into the centre for a look around. We went in the main church before it closed for lunchtime then with the aid of a map from the tourist office went up to the remains of the castle which has been converted to gardens inside and you can climb the steps onto the walls to get a view out, and we generally wandered around the streets around the area. We liked Tavira; it was a nice town to spend some time looking around compared to others along this stretch.

With plenty of the day left we wanted to move a bit further along, we headed to a tolerated beach parking spot next at Altura (GPS: 37.17088 -7.50097) which was full with about 60 vans on the patch of land behind the sand dunes. Near some of the French vans there were two games of Petanque going on as we walked through to take the boardwalk onto the beach, then along the sand. It’s a nice sandy stretch of beach along this part of the coast. In the morning I had a walk around to see what there was nearby, with the finding being not a lot, a main street of restaurants and shops between the high-rise hotels was mainly closed for winter but with a few restaurants open. With nothing of interest here we headed off to go inland close to the Spanish border to some towns recommended to us multiple times.

Our Portuguese supermarket haul
We had a couple of stops to make en route first, the first at Manta Rota to check it out for future reference as my Auntie Marina had recommended this to us last year as one of their favourite spots in the Algarve when on their European motorhome tour a few years back. This day the weather had turned off so was grey and windy so not the best conditions to see it in, but I had a look around at the aire which was completely full, with a lot of vans that looked like they were there long term, then onto the nice expansive beach. The old town area nearby looked like it might be nice too but we had to get on to our next stop which was Lidl and Pingo Doce to stock up on some items before leaving Portugal; tuna paté, nice flavours of crisps, cakes and piri-piri sauce. On the way there we briefly detoured through Monte Gordo at which point we had a downpour that involved full speed windscreen wipers when back on the main road.

Alcoutim and Mertola

Onwards up the N122 we got to Alcoutim to find the small aire was completely full but we’d seen another car park down the road that had some motorhomes in so went there to park (GPS: 37.47271 -7.47321). We walked around the town where there were a series of information signs about the place and their relations with Sanlucar de Guadiana, the mirrored Spanish town across the river Guadiana which marks the border between Portugal and Spain. This settlement was formed due to extensive river trade at the start of the fifteenth century and the towns have always kept close relations and aided each other. In 1996 both towns signed a twinning agreement whilst on a boat in the middle of the river, consecrating the old relationship. Back at the van in the evening having a brik of wine we noticed the difference after being used to the better quality bottled stuff recently.

The next day our target was Mina de São Domingos but first we stopped at Mertola, a hilltop walled town with a Moorish castle at the top, again alongside the Rio Guadiana. After parking just outside the walls we walked in, with a map from the tourist office we looked at a church on the way up to the castle. Just outside it are excavated ruins of the Moorish village and earlier Roman buildings with a walkway allowing you to walk around them. When in the castle the weather turned off with some light rain coming down and a cold wind blowing so we sheltered twice from it whilst trying to look around the castle.

Mina de São Domingos

It soon brightened up again so we wandered around some more of the small streets before we set off and took the scenic quiet road to Mina de São Domingos. This place had been recommended to us numerous times by Brits we've met in Portugal so we thought we shouldn't miss it before moving into Spain. There’s a service point and parking area in the village but we could see all the vans were parked by the small Barragem so went over there (GPS: 37.67216 -7.50447). It was full apart from one space at the end of a row that was a bit sloping but we decided would be OK so got parked. As it was pleasant here we stayed a second night, only moving to get into a better parking place when some became available.

Mina de São Domingos is known due to the ruins of the copper and pyrite mines which were the largest in Iberia and owned and run by the British company Mason & Barry from 1859 to 1965, who employed their own police force to control the workers. During our time here we walked around the remains of the mine buildings and the village which has info signs about points of interest. There was a significant divide in the community between the miners who had small one-room terraced houses without windows that were arranged in rows with communal bread ovens and latrines, and the English management staff who had larger houses with their own facilities in a separate area with communal gardens featuring a tennis court and bandstand. The village is occupied today with many of the small miners houses being joined to neighbouring ones to increase their size, but one was set up as a display home to show what they would typically have been like inside, and the mine HQ building is now a four-star hotel. We walked along a dirt track out of the village to find the English cemetery which is enclosed by high walls and has tall slim trees decorating it, there are six tombstones visible but is now neglected and overgrown.

The small, often windowless houses of the local workers
Remains of the gardens in the English neighbourhood
The old train service station
The English cemetery

From here the next day there was just Serpa to see before we would be over the border into Spain.

- Matt

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